I can't wait for the day when James Franco finally comes out of the performance-art
closet and reveals that almost everything he's done in the past, oh, 10 years or so has been part of an intricate ongoing practical joke to yank celebrity culture and our knee-jerk worship of those who are famous. His turn as the charlatan man behind the curtain in Oz the Great and Powerful was a big clue, I think. He's waiting for someone — anyone — to debunk the smoke-and-mirrors of the fame that allows him to churn out increasingly ridiculous pontifical junk. And no one does. (Well, I've been trying.) And so here comes Palo Alto, yet another effort to get someone — anyone — to say, "You're not really serious with this, are you?"
Now, I haven't read the collection of Franco-penned short stories this is based on, but I'm going to assume this pretentiously pensive, meandering film is a fairly accurate representation. Because why else bother? I'm going to take it as a given that Franco in fact concocted conversations among teenaged stoner guys that revolved around questions such as "If you were gonna kill yourself, how would you do it?" and "Would you rather be gay or a girl?" (Why not have them debate who would win in a fight, Superman or Mighty Mouse? These things need to be discussed!) I'm going to accept that Franco in fact came up with the pretty "class virgin" character of April (Emma Roberts), who's kinda into stoner Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and also kinda into her soccer coach, Mr. B (ahem, Franco), who's also kinda into her. Which is more risible? 1) The notion that there would be only one "class virgin" in high school (no fiction that pretends to be an honest exploration of modern American adolescence, as this one does, should fall into the adolescent trap of presuming that absolutely all teenagers, with few rare exceptions, are having sex all the time); 2) the conceit that the only other female character in the film, April's best friend, Emily (Zoe Levin), is a dirty slutty slut who will blow any guy at any time for any reason (thanks, Franco, for perpetuating the idea that "virgin" and "whore" are the only two states in which a human woman can exist); or 3) the fact that Franco let himself be cast as Mr. B. It's a trick question. Clearly, all are risible — desperate cries for Franco's artistic fakery to be exposed.
It gets better: Franco's stories are adapted for the screen and directed by Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola. Her only previous significant credit — apart from "playing" a baby or a toddler in a couple of Grandpa's movies — is as "costume staff assistant" on 2010's Somewhere, written and directed by her aunt Sofia Coppola. This is Hollywood nepotism run rampant, and it's resulted in such insight- and entertainment-free nonsense as gauzy slo-mo visuals of Emily turning sexy-lazy cartwheels while a teenaged boy describes, in nostalgia-tinged narration, how a whole buncha guys once screwed her at a party. How Franco arranged to get his stories up on the screen through such an avenue remains a mystery, but his brilliance in adding a new layer to his critique of the infinite influence of fame, even only by proxy, must be applauded.
If, on the other hand, Palo Alto (ironically, also where Franco was born in 1978) is offered in all seriousness as a meditative contemplation of the boredom of over-privileged, under-aspiring, unthinking, shallow, spoiled kids with nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it ... nah, that can't possibly be the case. Who on earth would want to watch that?